69th Street

Our wise, conscientious and more-educated-than-the-common-rabble electors have spoken – not with any partisan blindness or pecuniary self-interest, mind you – and I now have to finally come to terms with the impending inauguration. As much as it pains me, (sigh), it seems America has no alternative but to become white, oops! I mean “great” again. Like it was in the Happy Days or the pre-Sixties 60s. The time when I was a child and life was wonderful.

 

It really was wonderful, my childhood.

69-gangBorn originally in one of those industrial subdivisions, my parents moved me and my four siblings into a different community with a fabulous school system when I – the youngest – was just 3 years old. We inhabited an enchanted place on an elm lined street full of not technically modest houses. 69th Street. With 7 houses on each side of the block between the road on the crest of the hill and Pickle Alley at the bottom, a sufficient number of 3 to 16 year olds spilled out into the streets daily to ensure me an endless supply of group games and seminal experiences.

There were the Grands – a weird brother and sister I never really connected with but they had the greatest tree swing in their yard. (Decades later they visited me in Austria and I found them both charming.)

There was Ellie – my very first friend. We were so loyal to one another that we could be cruel and distant with impunity, never threatening the core connection. (She later had a hard life of serial losses and intermittent addictions/institutionalizations. A few years ago, I even heard that might not be alive anymore. Lately, I did some internet research and found evidence that she had recently remarried. That heartened me.)

There were the Champions – the most beautiful family that ever existed, but who somehow struck me as unhappy. Even unhappier were the Aspens, who lived right next door.  The kids were standoffish and the parents universally disapproving. My one experience with Mrs. Aspen was when she decided to take us kids to the opera shortly after our dad’s death. I was 8 or 9 at the time and was not exactly enthralled with Madame Butterfly. When I dozed off, Mrs. Aspen was deeply offended and proceeded to scold me on the ride home – much more harshly than my mother ever had. I avoided her like the Plague after that.

69th Street was also home to the Savage family with an uncountable number of kids. The youngest one was my age and had older twin sisters, one of whom was a witch. But, boy (!) could she play piano! And tell wild stories!  At the same time!

Then there was the house that seemed to change occupants every two years. For a short time, Katy, the Reverend’s daughter, lived there and she became my fast and furious best friend (“Sorry Ellie!”) until she moved away (“Hello, Ellie!”)

And then there were the Olders – all of them blindingly red-headed. Scott was my age. He was weird. He needed a comb and to lose the handkerchief he blew his nose into and then stuffed back into his pocket.  He was my first official boyfriend. (And he died on his bicycle two blocks from home at the ripe old age of 15.)

Those kids were my gang. We met up regularly in different constellations and in different flashpoints. We secretly explored the yards of the childless houses on the block. We played statue-maker and kick-the-can and (when it rained) Monopoly. We made hysterical attempts at strip poker after first donning layer upon layer of extra clothes and then arguing about whether we had to take off both or just one sock after a loss.  We made excursions to the Village for ice cream. Sometimes, this or that pairing would succeed in separating themselves from the pack on the way home. They would share an awkward moment of twosome-ness in Pickle Alley, then rejoin the pack and proceed to whisperingly ignore one another. For a while, some of us turned an old car on blocks into a clubhouse. Once, when Savage Boy wanted to come in, one of us told him he had to guess the (non-existent) password first. It quickly went from funny to cruel. After that, the clubhouse lost its charm and was abandoned. And we were all nicer to SB for a while.

In winter there were magical snow days with their social perfection. Everyone was released from prison for a day. First we all pitched in to shovel out driveways, but after that, there were a billion new toys to play with and no adult supervision. And then there was hot cocoa.

As I grew older, there were days when I didn’t automatically go out and meet the neighborhood gang after school. I stayed inside and watched TV. It was the afternoon and there were reruns – mostly of popular series from the preceding decade. Brady Bunch, Beverly Hillbillies, Dick Van Dyke, Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons . . .

Of all the shows I watched, the one with the most diverse cast of characters was probably Gilligan’s Island.

What I didn’t understand until much later was the demographics of my childhood. Whether it was my neighbors, the TV I consumed or the snow days . . . they were all completely white. The city was about 99.9% white and, I’m guessing, 90% Republican.  The vast majority of my friends had dads who left for work in the morning and housewife mothers who didn’t. (If any of my other classmates also carried a house key to school, I didn’t hear about it.)  In economic terms, we all landed smack-dab in the center of the middle class.  We were suburban. We were monotone and . . . bland.

Enter Josephine.

She was my mom’s household help. From my perspective an incredibly large black woman who entered my life once a week. There were a few times when I stayed home sick from school on one of Josephine’s days. She made me scrambled eggs and they were runny and sort of slimy. I gagged just a little when I swallowed them. I might have wished that mom would find a new cleaning lady – one who made better eggs. But that feeling didn’t stick. Josephine was kind and she checked up on me throughout the day.

I remember my mom and Josephine sitting together over coffee and talking as equals in their very different languages. I remember Josephine taking bags and bags full of our old clothes and toys to her car.  I learned that she distributed these things among needy kids in her own neighborhood. She and my mom had created their own private goodwill network.

Years later I suspected that it was important for my mom that we have contact with people different from ourselves. Josephine was not the only example of my mom’s attempts to widen our horizons and diversify our experience of the world. Her own childhood coincided with the Great Depression which hadn’t left her family unscathed. I think she knew how very limited our worldview on 69th Street was – or, I should say, would have been. Or I should say, could have become.

69 was a number that could make young teens giggle and blush, but it was also the number most similar to yin and yang. Without Josephine, witho69-yin-yangut all of my mother’s Josephines, my childhood days could have been all yang with no yin – just a sort of upside-down apostrophe. More contracted.  Incomplete.

 

About four weeks from now, our nation will say goodbye to yin and then just hang there, symbolically and spiritually diminished. An upside-down apostrophe, signifying nothing.  A people who identifies themselves by what they are NOT, not realizing that the exercise alone makes them only half of what they once were.

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5 thoughts on “69th Street

  1. Love this and it’s our greatest fear. I was 18 or 19 before I met my first African-American. I was so fascinated with her hair (which was beautiful) that my staring probably made her uncomfortable. I worked for a large company (2,000 employees) and there was one black. My area is much more diverse now with Latinos and Syrians (who emigrated about 20 years ago) comprising the largest groups. They bring a different perspective along with fabulous music and food. I can’t imagine going back.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great piece, 227. Part of what made America great back then was playing outside with real kids instead of spending your life texting or playing video games. Thanks heavens for the people that crossed the borders of that white 99% and opened our eyes to other colors and cultures. Viva, Josephine! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My story is similar to yours (even a pickle factory) only we were poor and all white. My sister, Dorothy, once bit a little black boy on the bus because she thought he would taste like chocolate. How small was our world back then.

    Liked by 1 person

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